Reflections on the Archives and Research Center Blog for the Historical Society of Frederick County

For my digital project I decided to create a WordPress site for the Archives and Research Center of the Historical Society of Frederick County (HSFC).  The site offers information about the Archives and Research Center, its collections, new donations, and will host collection finding aids as they are completed and verified against the actual collection contents.  I am the Research Center Coordinator for the Historical Society and I received approval from my Executive Director to proceed with the blog.

Loat's Female Orphan Asylum, now home to the HSFC.
Loat’s Female Orphan Asylum, now home to the HSFC.

I plan to post blog entries regularly based on new projects, items “found” in the collection, new accessions and my work schedule.  My goal is to write and share longer blog posts every two weeks and shorter “item of the week” posts every week.

My original plan was to create a catablog for the Archives and Research Center featuring a collection guide for the William O. Lee Jr. Collection, collection MS0080 of the HSFC’s Archives and Research Center.  I had planned to use Omeka to display the collection’s finding aid and exhibit some collection items.  The Lee Collection is the HSFC’s only collection documenting lives of African Americans in Frederick County.  It was my hope to share this valuable collection and generate interest in the archival collections of the Historical Society.

William O. Lee Jr. Finding Aid
William O. Lee Jr. Finding Aid

I decided to switch to WordPress because the platform would allow me to post my finding aids as static “pages” and submit regular blog posts. The Lee Collection was the first finding aid I posted but I wanted to broaden my focus to include as many finding aids as possible.  When I finished posting the four finished finding aids up currently, the site still felt flat.  Sharing information about the Research Center through a blog seemed like a more effective way to reach out to HSFC members, potential members, and members of the wider community.  Every week at work I “discover” new things in the HSFC collections and I felt that regular blog posts would be an excellent way to connect with the public.

My first blog post was inspired by the photograph collection of Margaret “Patsy” Culler Storm Moore.   She was a life-long resident of Frederick and had a passion for photography.

Margaret Culler Storm Moore, in the 1938 Touchstone yearbook of Hood College.
Margaret Culler Storm Moore, in the 1938 Touchstone yearbook of Hood College.

Currently, the site for the Archives and Research Center of the Historical Society of Frederick County uses the free Basic plan, which provides 3GB of storage, and does not include a custom site address, but I would like this to change.  WordPress keeps track of site visits, clicks and referrals, and I also plan to modify the visitor statistics I keep to include a “How did you hear about us?” section.  If I can demonstrate this project’s potential benefits in terms of user access to collections, and increased Research Center visits hopefully I can justify an increase in my budget next year for a paid plan.

Video games and learning: waste of time, or valuable tool?


In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee challenges the assertion that video games are a “waste of time” by discussing the potential of good video games to encourage deeper forms of learning and enjoyment of players.  According to Gee the best video games echo the best theories of learning in education, encouraging active and critical learning, rather than basic “skill-and-drill” methods of instruction (4).  The games Gee refers to specifically offer players the chance to take on a virtual persona and navigate a complex and interactive world.

Gee Video Games

These games allow for learning in the contexts of the following principles of learning, situated cognition, New Literacy Studies, and connectionism.  Situated cognition maintains that learning “is fully embodied in (situated within) a material, social, and cultural world,” and is more than just what happens inside the human mind.  New Literacy Studies reiterates the sentiment that learning goes beyond the constraints of the mind, and includes “social and cultural practices with economic, historical, and political implications.”  Connectionism insists that humans are adept at recognizing patterns and learn best when they can link abstract principles to actual experience (9).

According to, education, learning and thinking, are inherently social processes.  We read and interpret different works depending on the social community with which we identify.  Becoming a “gamer” includes more than simply learning to play the game.  Often it leads players to online information, connecting the individual to a larger community of people, or affinity group, with the same interests and similar “identities.”

He describes gaming as a semiotic domain or “an area or set of activities where people think, act, and value in certain ways” (19).  Semiotic domains, gaming for instance, contain “languages” with which participants must become “literate.”  According to Gee video games can encourage players to engage in active rather than passive learning as the new player begins to navigate the game design.   Players are able to try on a new personas, act out and explore their values, and solve problems as they arise within the games.  When a player reaches a certain level of understanding of a game they can start to think reflectively about the games parts and begin to critique it or make innovations.

Gee does not argue for the use of video games in classroom instruction, or that players always learn valuable content.  Rather, his point is that well-made video games, though difficult to learn and master, can encourage active and critical learning in a way that players find enjoyable; they illustrate sound principles of learning that the education system should consider.  Players do not have to get it done quickly and get it right the first time, rather they are free to explore, hypothesize and learn from experience.

It is worth noting that Gee’s discussion of video games does not focus on content or related issues of misogyny in gaming culture, for instance.   While he argues video games are neither inherently good or evil, the importance of community in learning indicates a need to investigate the effects on individuals of potential exclusion by the community.  It would be interesting to hear Gee’s thoughts on the effects of misogyny encountered by female gamers within the “affinity group” of their semiotic domain.

Pop Up Archive

Do you have spoken-word audio files in need of tagging, transcription and preservation?  Trying to start a podcast or share your oral histories online?  If so, then Pop Up Archive may be the answer for you.  With Pop Up Archive, simply upload your files and then sit back while they automatically apply tags, and transcribe the audio, making it searchable down to the second.  It generally takes Pop Up about the length of the recording to create a transcript, so a 30 minute recording should take about a half-hour to process.  Pop Up allows users to edit the generated transcripts and their suggested tags.


Use of Pop Up Archive requires signing up for a plan depending on how many hours of audio you will be processing a month.  There are personal plans, including a free option, and business plans.  The free plan provides one hour of audio processing each month and only basic transcripts for the first two minutes of your audio files, but premium transcripts can be ordered for $22 per hour.  Premium transcripts are more accurate and are created using software designed for broadcast and oral history recordings.  So far Pop Up can only process English language recordings, but their hope is to support Spanish soon

Another service option is a customizable enterprise plan.   This is useful if you have a collection of audio files that need to be uploaded once, rather than the need for recurring uploads.  Pop Up Archive receives its support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, 500 Startups, and Bloomberg Beta.

Users include journalists, media companies, and historians.  One major project using Pop Up Archive for support is the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, a joint project of WFMT Chicago, the Chicago History Museum and the Library of Congress.  Pop Up Archive provided a customized project plan for the staff of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive and is transcribing the digitized audio files.  Terkel was on the radio at WFMT Chicago for almost 50 years and interviewed approximately 5,000 influential and famous people.  At this point the project’s website only contains information until the more than 9,000 hours of interviews can be digitized by the Library of Congress and transcribed by Pop Up Archive.

Studs terkel

Until the website is complete, materials from the Terkel Archive can be accessed through Pop Up along with other materials from Pop Up Archives public collections.   Users can also choose to “Explore” and browse for audio content by tag, creator, interviewer, interviewee, host, guest, and other categories and enjoy all the content made public by Pop Ups users.

Museums: Getting in the Game

In her Digital Dialog talk, “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory,” Sheila Brennan urges history museums to get in the game by “applying digital tools and methodologies to their collections.”  She warns that if museums continue to lack a presence on the web, their collections, in addition to the contextual information museums have about those collections, may be lost.

I work in the archives and library of a small, privately owned history museum in which it is acknowledged that the archival and library materials are the biggest draw for visitors.  This may be partially attributed to the fact that the catalog for the research center is online, but many visitors come to do research without ever having used the catalog.  I think much of the problem has to do with the perceived and actual inaccessibility of museum items.  When visitors come to the museum, artifacts they see are kept behind glass, ropes, or “DO NOT TOUCH” signs.  Most people have no idea they can come to our institution and request to see museum objects and few would know to come looking since the museum collections are not searchable online.

museum damage

When visitors come to the research center, even though there is an air of restriction – requirements to sign-in, stow bags in a locker, use pencil only – they still get to see and work with collection materials.  Now, I don’t propose allowing visitors to handle all of our museum objects, but the suggestions Brennan puts forward, sharing collection metadata online, creating digital exhibits to showcase more artifacts, and inviting experts from outside the institution to contribute would help increase the accessibility (and hopefully visitation) of the museum.

Although digitization is often viewed as “a process of loss,” Tim Sherratt maintains in “Conversations with Collections” this is too simplistic a view of “digital deficiencies.”  Instead we should view digitization of cultural heritage material as a chance to interact, analyze and perceive these objects in new ways.  Digital images of artifacts would allow the public to interact with collection pieces to which they would not ordinarily have access.  Further, as Brennan points out, linking museum artifacts with textual and other record types can help fill in the gaps in our understanding of history.

In a quote cited by Brennan, Sherratt asserts “the most exciting part of online technology is the power it gives people to pursue their passions.”  I think part of the reason visitation is higher in the research center of my institution than the museum, is the personal connection people feel with the library and archival materials.  Genealogists and family historians come to research their family, to root themselves in the larger scheme of history, to pursue their passion.  By creating access to collections online and allowing the public to interact with objects in new ways, museums have the opportunity to forge similar personal connections with the public.

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms

Although Johanna Drucker, in a review of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms, calls the work “improbably readable,” this book is not an easy read.  The reviews of this book, although less dense are still not easy to read.  I have found myself continually getting stuck in the introduction trying to make my way through his explanation of the book’s message and trajectory.   Although I may disagree slighty with Drucker on that point, I agree with her assessment (if I understand what’s really going on here) that Kirschenbaum’s work is “compellingly suggestive and significant in its overall argument.”

This is how I feel…


And this is what I think is happening …

In Mechanisms, Kirschenbaum hopes to present “a set of alternative access points for the study of computing, access points that bring storage, inscription, and engineering into the visible purview of what we think of as new media” (p. 35).  By examining the textuality and materiality of electronic records, the “thingness” that makes a collection of pieces – hardware, code, programs, bits, etc. – into a whole digital object that we can experience, he seeks to demonstrate that these forms of new media are more than what we can see at a superficial level.  To truly understand digital objects, Kirschenbaum asserts that we much look beyond our tendency toward “screen essentialism” and examine what is happening on the other side of the screen.

Kirschenbaum breaks the concept of materiality into two areas, forensic and formal materiality.  For these definitions, I like (i.e. I can understand) the explanation given by Viola Lasmana in her review of Mechanisms.  According to Lasmana, “formal materiality involves the use of software to make up the simulated materiality that we see on the screen.  Forensic materiality, on the other hand, is the inscriptive, the trace, the ‘difference’ that is based in individuality.”  In chapter 3 Kirschenbaum links the concepts of formal and forensic materiality to allographic and autographic objects respectively.  According to Kirschenbaum’s explanation, “allographic objects, such as written texts, fulfill their ontology in reproduction, while autographic objects, such as a painting, betray their ontology in reproduction” (p. 133).

This is how I understand these concepts and categories.  With respect to texts, or much of what we would consider secondary sources, the carrier of information contributes little to most peoples’ understanding of the object.   Public library users, for instance, frequently care little if they are looking for the latest John Grisham, whether the book is hard or soft cover, or even large print.  The content of the work remains constant regardless of format.  In electronic media, and other objects with artifactual value, the carrier or the format has much greater importance.  A copy of a daguerreotype will relate the information contained within the photo (a boy with his dog, material culture, the built environment) but the original photograph has added artifactual value simply because it is a daguerreotype.  According to Kirschenbaum, to truly understand and therefore preserve a digital artifact you need to understand how it was created, how it is being stored and how it is presented.  You need to consider the digital artifact beyond what is seen.